In the classic 1998 rom-com “You’ve Got Mail” — Mrs. O insisted I describe her favorite chick flick as a classic. Discuss? — Joe Fox mansplains to Kathleen Kelly that forcing her small family-owned bookstore into closure is strictly business.
“It’s not personal,” he assures.
Kelly isn’t buying it. She pushes back against the superstore owner’s famous “Godfather” reference with a disgusted shake of her head.
“I’m so sick of that,” she says. “All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people.”
It sure is. But is anyone talking about it?
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That funny yet illuminating Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan scene came to mind last week at the Big Ten football media days in Indianapolis as commissioner Kevin Warren, conference coaches and Big Ten Network talking heads addressed changes happening in college athletics.
Frustration over issues related to conference realignment, name, image and likeness and the transfer portal were visible — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s harangue was especially impressive and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh lamented the loss of regional conferences — but the majority sentiment was that the “new” college football is business, not personal.
College football is business, not personal
In the current vernacular, “It is what it is.”
That’s how Maryland coach Mike Locksley described his team eventually having to travel across 2,500 miles and three time zones to play UCLA and Southern California when the two West Coast teams begin Big Ten play in 2024.
Accepting change mostly is healthy. Don’t sweat what you can’t control. But if you’re not at least a little bothered by the increasing professionalism of college sports, I wonder what you want out of amateur athletics in the first place (beyond lower ticket prices, cheaper parking and more competitive non-conference games)?
Do you care about regional rivalries? Would it irritate you if athletes were able to transfer as often as they want? (The NCAA announced last week it is close to eliminating the restriction against players transferring multiple times). Do you worry that locker room chemistry will combust when the starting quarterback makes $2 million in NIL money and the second-team tight end makes $10,000?
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Yes, it’s personal. And this coming from someone strongly in favor of NIL and selfishly excited about the Bruins and Trojans coming aboard, as well as the formation of a possible 16-team playoff (my unselfish side feels for athletes who will be forced to criss-cross the country and football players forced into extra games to make more money for institutions who insist it’s not all about the money; hey, it’s complicated)
Maybe it is naive to expect college football to tread water. I do not support reverting to the pre-player empowerment era. But taking another stroke toward becoming the NFL 2.0? Some argue we’re already there, but we’re not. Players are looking into unionizing – see Penn State – but legally they are not yet university employees. And be careful what you wish for on that topic, athletes, because employees can be fired if they drop three passes in a game or consistently stumble on the balance beam.
What fans want
What do fans want? Perhaps it’s enough to watch your team on TV, unconcerned with the bureaucratic inner workings of the sport, completely satisfied with sipping a brew that does not require working a second job to afford.
Such may be the case. A Twitter survey conducted last week suggests 71% of fans will continue to watch as much college football as possible, regardless of whether conferences further splinter into the haves and have-nots. (i.e. the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference forming separate 24-team super leagues that face off in a national championship game). Twitter’s audience skews younger, so the numbers likely leave out a decent portion of older traditionalists, but those dinosaurs, ahem, are not the future.
On the other hand, warning signals cannot be ignored. The same survey showed 26% would watch only top-tier college football, not a watered down Pac-12, for instance, which does not bode well for conferences hoping to avoid becoming B-leagues.
Fortunately, the product on the field (including the band!) remains fundamentally the same as ever. This semi-rant is more about the suits recognizing, and offering some sympathy outside their own windowless worlds, that the business of college football impacts the personal.
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CEO coaches keeping the personal at bay is somewhat understandable, if not also a bit disappointing. They are driven to drive out distraction, yes, but it would not kill them to just once say “I feel for the fans on this topic.”
“I don’t know if I’m a fan (of the changes). I just know we have to adapt,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “That’s what you have to focus on.”
That’s the business side talking. But just beneath Day’s veneer, dare I say a small piece of the personal broke through.
“There are nights you don’t sleep well because you don’t know what’s coming,” he said.
Join the club, coach. It is personal to a lot of people.